Student Journalist on SXSW Tragedy Coverage: ‘If It Bleeds, It Shouldn’t Always Lead’

“Hey, I think something happened out there. … Something really bad just happened.”

Roughly two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, while waiting for rapper Tyler the Creator to take the stage during a show at South by Southwest (SXSW), Jane Claire Hervey witnessed the immediate aftermath of a deadly crash. A 21-year-old man is being charged with murder for plowing his car through a crowd of festival-goers, allegedly while drunk, killing three and injuring more than two dozen.

In a compelling piece earlier this week for Orange, the online student magazine she helps run at the University of Texas at Austin, Hervey writes publicly for the first time about what she saw — and experienced — firsthand.

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As she recalls, mass confusion and helplessness were two of the main feelings that initially tore apart her insides — while “the blood and the bodies” played out synchronously with heavy metal music and mosh pits:

“For about two minutes, I watched someone crouch over a body laid out on the street, performing CPR. I don’t know why I stared. Numb. Everyone around me whispered, and I’m not sure if I even spoke. ‘What should we do, what should we do, what should we do,’ buzzed around. People began to gather on our railing — what they say about train wrecks is true — and the story was retold and retold. Calls were made, texts were sent and the frantic social media posts began.”

The full-bore news reporting started in earnest soon after, presenting her with a media ethics memory she has found hard to shake. As the enormity of the crash became apparent that night and law enforcement and emergency services multiplied, Tyler the Creator’s performance was canceled. While leaving the area with the rest of the crowd, Hervey overheard an Austin American-Statesman photographer shouting at police, demanding to be granted access.

The image — and the journalist’s seeming entitlement in that moment — is still assaulting her brain-space two weeks later. From her perspective, the “I’m a Journalist, Let Me Through!” display was callous, showing a regard for storytelling above humanity. As she puts it:

“As a journalist myself, I cannot get over the apparent lack of feeling he showed. I do not feel that objectivity entails a disregard for empathy and respect during times of terror and heartache. The photos those [American-Statesman] photographers took obviously helped others to understand what had happened that night, and possibly help those not at the scene identify whether their friends had been a part of the accident, but at what cost? At what point are we, as journalists, simply observers? At what point are we justified to yell in officers’ faces for the sake of a story — a story that has not ended yet? At what point do we feel entitled to contribute to the mess, to interject ourselves at a degree that only causes more problems? At what point do we set down our cameras and understand that the feelings of those directly involved outweighs our need to know, our deadlines, our editors? At what point do we step back and hold the story’s characters in our arms, instead of clutching the camera or the pen, attempting to immortalize our subjects?”

Her concerns of course invoke a pair of classic conundrums: 1) Journalism’s potential exploitation of the few for the sake of the many or the greater good. 2) Journalists’ proper course of action when confronted with people who are in danger or in need. (Give them space? Lend a hand? Or report nonstop like the guy with the camera below?)

Hervey puts an interesting digital journalism spin on the exploitation argument: In the social media age, an event like the crash automatically triggers an overabundance of eyewitness photos, videos, tweets and status updates from people nearby. So, from her perspective, a swarming press will be hard-pressed to contribute anything other than exact replicas of those accounts — just with higher image resolutions and better grammar.  So why bother, especially while being a bother to the suffering?

In her words, “I believe, in this case, citizen journalism was enough. Just because we can take a better photo does not mean we should. … If it bleeds, it shouldn’t always lead.”

What do you think?

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Comments
4 Responses to “Student Journalist on SXSW Tragedy Coverage: ‘If It Bleeds, It Shouldn’t Always Lead’”
  1. “At what point do we set down our cameras and understand that the feelings of those directly involved outweighs our need to know, our deadlines, our editors?”

    “At what point do we step back and hold the story’s characters in our arms, instead of clutching the camera or the pen, attempting to immortalize our subjects?”

    Oh, good God… another bleeding heart.

  2. PerryWhite says:

    No need to criticize a college student, this is the time to ask hard questions. My friend’s father after his residency decided to pursue ophthalmology, precisely because he was uncomfortable making life and death decisions. If she doesn’t t want to cover crime, accidents, death, etc., than she can cover sports, movies or restaurant reviews. Anyone who’s covered a serious police beat knows what I’m talking about.

  3. Steve Apps says:

    News can happen anytime, and anywhere. A reporter or photojournalist must be ready to step in and cover those stories. This student is not ready for the real world of news gathering. A journalist would have pulled out their notepad or iphone and started to take notes and talk to witnesses. A photojournalist would start to document the scene. The Austin-Statesman photographer was doing his job trying to get access to the scene.The policeman was doing his job trying to keep the scene secure.

    I want to answer this next couple questions. As background I’ve been a working photojournalist for the last 28-years and a photo editor for the last four.

    “At what point do we set down our cameras and understand that the feelings of those directly involved outweighs our need to know, our deadlines, our editors? At what point do we step back and hold the story’s characters in our arms, instead of clutching the camera or the pen, attempting to immortalize our subjects?

    The simple answer to the last two questions is NEVER, except in the rare instance where they are the only person available to render aid. Photojournalist have feelings and we care about people, but taking the photos is our job. You take the photos, and decide later with the help of editors what to publish. When something horrible like this happens you react, and start to document what happened. Believe me we react to what has happened, only after our job is finished.

  4. “I believe, in this case, citizen journalism was enough. Just because we can take a better photo does not mean we should. … If it bleeds, it shouldn’t always lead.” I think Al Diaz would also agree with you that journalists can be humans first and then journalists. https://nppa.org/news/al-diaz-given-nppa-humanitarian-award